Killzone 2, Crysis, Empire Total War, Gran Turismo 4 prologue. What all of these games have in common is spectacular graphics, created through years of hard work by programmers and artists working in sync. Things like real time lighting, bloom effects, and texture mapping all make a game look more impressive, but how far can graphics go and how much do they really mean in a game?
I thought of these questions because I have recently been playing games on my laptop that my previous computer from about five years ago was unable to run, this includes Half Life 2 and Rome Total War. I never buy a top of the range computer, I simply can’t bring myself to buy something so expensive that depreciates in value so quickly, my laptop has a graphics card that I consider mid range, and it’s the first dedicated card I’ve ever had.
To be honest I was impressed by the graphics of Half Life 2 and Rome Total War, to a much bigger extent than I thought I would be especially considering the amount of stick the source engine gets for looking dated. I own Killzone 2 (and think it’s a great game) and it’s considered one of the best looking games at the moment, but I don’t feel that it outstrips Half Life 2 by a massive margin, especially when I consider the jump up in visuals from the Playstation to the PS2, or the PS2 to the PS3.
This then leads me to wonder how big the jump in graphics from PS3 to PS4 will feel? I can’t see it being as impressive as the advances that have come before it, simply because graphics are approaching such a high standard already, there will be a far bigger reliance on art direction as the differentiating aesthetic factor between games.
I’m primarily a console gamer, so I have the security of knowing that any game that comes out for the Playstation 3 will work fine without me having to worry about whether my system is powerful enough, but if I had an option to upgrade my PS3 in order to get better graphics would I? (No I never owned a N64, but if I had, I would’ve got the expansion pack because Perfect Dark was just that good)
Most likely not. For me graphics are something that can enhance a gameplay experience but with rarely make the difference between a game being enjoyable and a game not being enjoyable. However this sounds too stereotypical so I’ll expand. If a game looks awful, like a steaming bowl of dog vomit, mixed with excrement, then no amount of good gameplay will save it, but it’s so hard for a game to look truly awful when it first comes out, if the developers have even the slightest drop of talent to be found anywhere in their bodies.
Some games age badly, like GoldenEye, but still remain playable due to the strength of their core gameplay, games with pre-rendered backgrounds, like Planescape: Torment will never look much worse than they did when they came out, and will often end up looking better than their full 3-D counterparts down the line. From the 7th generation it will be tough to find a game that looks as awful down the line, as Lylat Wars or Crash Bandicoot do now considering how good everyone thought they looked on release.
I use the Total War series as my example here, Shogun: Total War, was an excellent game, the combination of turned based expansion and city management, and real time combat underlined a new strategy genre that fitted between Civ4 style 4x empire builders, and RTS in the style of Age Of Empires and Starcraft. Next came Medieval: Total War, but the biggest jump up in visuals came with the 3rd game in the series.
Rome: Total War arguably possessed some of the best graphics of the time, with an engine that could render 30,000 troops at any one time, a spectacle of the grandest proportions (so good in fact that I was unable to run it). The jump between Medieval and Rome, was a really tangible change, because it was a change from sprites to real 3-D.
That was a jump that I could appreciate, a leap forward that looked like good value, and really had a big impact on how the game felt. Somehow that jump made the combat feel tighter, the world map was more immersible and impressive, even though in practicle terms little was different.
However the next jump to Medieval II:Total War….
While still very impressive, the difference was now in the smaller details that can be shown or the better the textures used. In Rome units consisted of the same character model used over and over, sometimes with a different model for a general, in Medieval II there was more in-unit variation, meaning that things looked more realistic close up. However The “WOW” factor just wasn’t the same, I don’t feel like the game is much better simply by virtue of graphics alone. So onto the final jump Empire: Total War…
It would be a filthy lie if I were to say that Empire’s visuals are not utterly jaw dropping in all their glory, but once again, if you are looking at the top screenshot, the standard of visuals is not massively above those found in Medieval II. They still don’t make Rome look outdated in the same way that Rome made Shogun look, where the difference is a gap of one game. Once the combat starts in Empire, things like the smoke effects are undoubtedly impressive, and there are once again lots of smaller details that you are able to spot, but these effects are only small additions, as opposed to being a completely visual overhaul. Only the sea effects in Empire truly have that freshness needed to have a game-making impact, and that is because none of the previous games have shown naval combat as a real time event.
Aesthetics are important in a game, and good graphics can make the difference between a good and a great game, but the fact is, for the last 15 years graphics have been improving at an exponential rate, that is now slowing down. If you have a system that is good enough to run games like Crysis at their highest possible settings then you will enjoy them thoroughly. But is it worth spending a lot of money now to be able to run them, when you can wait a year, upgrade your system cheaply, and buy the game for half price anyway. And in the meantime, enjoy a load of titles that still look good, and don’t require you to own $$$$ of extra kit?